Gingerbread Cookies

At the risk of sounding Grinch-like here: gingerbread cookies, that super seasonal, quintessential Christmas classic, are just not my thing. They don't quite make the cut for me, cookie-wise; while I like my cookies soft and chewy, gingerbread cookies often tiptoe across the line between crunchy to downright hard-to-bite in to. If you're making them from scratch, the dough has to be chilled, rolled out, and cut out before baking, a process you might not have time for in the hectic days leading up to the 25th. And I know, I know -- your average gingerbread man/woman is pretty adorable, with his/her gum drop buttons and iced-on smile, but still begs the question: is the additional candy and frosting really bringing anything to the table, flavor-wise?! Long story short, I give the classic gingerbread cookie a solid A for effort, but give me a candy cane or a sugar cookie any day. 

But no so fast! Today's recipe is a game changer, one that fixes all the gingerbread cookie woes I've just whined about (you were a good listener). These, ladies and gentlemen, are gingerbread cookies that get it right, cookies that are streamlined without losing any of their gingery goodness. My favorite gingerbread cookies are soft and chewy, reminiscent of  the snickerdoodle, its cinnamon-y cousin; they lose the classic gingerbread man shape, and thus any rolling or cutting, instead going directly from the bowl to the baking sheet; candy decorations and icing are swapped for a dusting of sugar, which makes the cookies sparkly and festive with half the work; and the flavor! We've got cloves, nutmeg, and cinnamon plus the usual ginger, making for a spicy, cozy cookie, gingerbread cookie 2.0, cookies to be part of your Christmas cookie exchange, or given as an edible gift, or baked up to make your house smell awesome, then eaten alongside a mug of hot chocolate. The choice is yours. 

A couple of notes: If you are in Rome and looking for molasses, you can find it at most Castroni stores. Two of my taste testers commented that these were on the sweet side for them, so if you prefer your desserts to be on the less sweet side, feel free to reduce the sugar a bit (I'd say by 1/4 of a cup or so -- taste the batter and decide). Feel free to up the quantity of spices here too -- I added a bit of extra ginger and cinnamon. 

Looking for other gingerbread-y recipes? I've got this classic Gingerbread and these Dark Chocolate Gingerbread Bars. Looking for other Christmas appropriate bars or cookies? I've got these Double Chocolate Chunk Cookies, these Magical, 5 ingredient Peanut Butter Cookies, these Dark Chocolate Coconut Macaroonsthese Brown Butter Chocolate Chunk Cookies, this Shortbread, these Chocolate Chip Cookies, and these Peanut Butter Sandwich Cookies. Not in to cookies? I've also got this Chocolate, Pistachio, and Cranberry Fudge, and this Salame di cioccolato, and if we're being honest I wouldn't mind a box of these Salted Brown Butter Rice Krispy Treats either. 

GINGERBREAD COOKIES

Ingredients:
1/2 cup (112 grams) unsalted butter, softened
1/2 cup (65 grams) sugar
1/2 cup (85 grams) brown sugar
1 egg
3/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 cup (70 grams) molasses
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon cloves
1/2 teaspoon ginger
1/8 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 cups (260 grams) all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda

Extra sugar, for rolling

Directions:

Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit (170 degrees Celsius).In a large bowl, beat together the butter and sugars together until light and fluffy. 

Beat in the egg, vanilla and molasses and whip 1-2 minutes or until it turns a light brown color. In a medium bowl, mix together the flour, spices, and baking soda and set aside.
Stir the dry ingredients into your molasses/sugar/egg mixture and mix until dry ingredients are just combined. Fill a shallow dish with a light layer of sugar. Roll a heaping tablespoon of dough into a ball and coat in the sugar. Place on silicone baking mat, lightly greased cookie sheet or parchment paper lined cookie sheet.
Bake 8-10 minutes or until outside looks cooked but inside is still soft and gooey. Cool 5 minutes on cookie sheet before transferring to cooling rack.
Serve warm or at room temperature. Store in an airtight container until ready to serve. Makes 30-35 cookies.



Recipe from www.laurenslatest.com. 








































Polpette di ricotta al sugo

It's the first post of the month of December! In anticipation of the 25th it seemed only fitting I post something with Christmas colors, or rather, polpette di ricotta in a (red) tomato sauce with a sprinkling of (green) basil over the top, something vaguely wholesome before I launch in to a whirlwind of Christmas cookies and hot chocolate (buckle your seat belts).

Though the Italian word polpette can be translated as "meatballs" in English, today's recipe are polpette that are not made with meat, but, as the name suggests, ricotta, and are more akin to dumplings. Now, before I dive in to this post, let me be upfront: ricotta and I haven't always gotten along so well, and in fact, it was one of my very least favorite foods when I was little. I didn't like the texture, or its non-committal wishy-washy flavor (why couldn't it just stand up and be STRONG, like Parmesan?!) It was a cheese that couldn't be grated, or melted, and I didn't trust it, not one bit. I refused to eat the ricotta-stuffed baked shells my grandmother made -- I picked the ricotta out and ate the pasta -- and the same went for lasagna. Ravioli, with its inevitable ricotta filling, was something I ate listlessly, disinterested, and I sidestepped the ricotta pie my mom would make for Easter, every Easter. As far as I was concerned, all cheeses were actually not created equal. 

As time passed and I grew up though, I became a little wiser, or at least my taste buds did, and ricotta -- much like citrus desserts, poached eggs, and pesto -- was suddenly reevaluated, reassessed, and deemed actually quite delicious. It wasn't bland, it was just mild, the perfect complement or counterpart to many an ingredient, and incredibly versatile, great on its own with a drizzle of honey, awesome in savory frittate, gnocchi, or pizza, and stellar in desserts, and well, if I was being completely honest, I'd been a bit unfair to it all these years. Proof of the 360 degree turn around: these polpette di ricotta al sugo are what I made for myself a few weeks ago when I was home with a cold. They were cozy, comforting, and filling -- packed with Parmesan and basil, fluffy and dumpling-like, simmered in a deeply flavorful tomato sauce! -- just what one wants when they're in their pajamas at home feeling a bit under the weather. Bonus: these are a suitable main for all your non-meat eating friends, and not lacking in the slightest. Ricotta: I was so, so wrong. 

A couple of notes: I bought a dryer variety of ricotta from the cheese shop around the corner, but if you have a variety with more moisture (like the one you might get from the cheese section of the supermarket) you should drain the ricotta for at least 30 minutes (place it over a strainer in the sink and let all the excess moisture drip away). Feel free to replace parsley for the basil in the polpette, or Pecorino for the Parmesan. If your bread isn't stale, you can just toast it in the oven for a few minutes. 

Looking for other polpette recipes? I've also got these polpette di melanzane, (made with eggplant) and these polpette al sugo (made with beef). Looking for other ricotta recipes? I've got this ricotta pound cake, this lemon ricotta cake, and these castagnole di ricotta.

POLPETTE DI RICOTTA

Ingredients:
1 cup (8 ounces or 250 grams) ricotta cheese
2-3 tablespoons milk
About 3 slices, crusts removed (70 grams or 2.5 ounces) stale bread, torn in to pieces
A couple of leaves of basil, torn up, to taste
1 egg, lightly beaten
1/4 cup (30 grams) Parmesan cheese, freshly grated
1/4 teaspoon salt
Pepper, to taste

Ingredients for the sauce:
400ml crushed tomatoes
1 garlic clove
1/2 a small yellow onion
More basil, torn up

Extra Parmesan and a sprinkle of basil for serving

Directions:
First things first, start your sauce: In a medium sauce pan, heat a bit of olive oil (enough to coat the bottom of the pan) over medium low heat. Add the garlic clove and saute until fragrant and golden brown, then add the tomatoes and onion half. Bring the sauce to a bubble, then lower the heat and let the sauce simmer for about 30-35 minutes, stirring.

While your sauce is cooking: In a small bowl, soak the bread in the milk. Set aside. In a larger bowl, combine the ricotta, eggs, Parmesan, salt, and pepper. Squeeze the milk out of the bread and add to the ricotta mixture. Stir everything together well, then add a bit of basil to taste. Taste the mixture and add a little more salt if needed. 

Roll this mixture into 14-15 balls, and place on a lightly oiled baking sheet. Bake in your preheated oven for 10-15 minutes, or until lightly browned on the top. 
Back to the sauce! Remove the onion and the garlic and discard. Taste the sauce and add salt as needed. Stir in a bit of basil, to taste. Next, add the polpette di ricotta to the sauce (a few at a time if the pot isn't pick enough) and let simmer for about 5-8 minutes, or until warmed throughout and nice and saucy. 
Serve the polpette di ricotta hot in shallow bowls with more sauce, topped with extra Parmesan and a little basil. Serves 4. 

























Tigelle

It's the last week of November! This means not only the end of Thanksgiving and the official start of the Christmas season, but also that it is time for this month's round of Cucina Conversations (!!!) This month our theme is pane, or bread. I happen to be a big fan of making my own bread, as evidenced by this challah bread, these bagels, these maritozzi, this pizza bianca, and this focaccia. I've said it before and I've said it again -- bread making is more wait than work, a bit of mixing and kneading paired with lots of resting and rising from the dough. It's really not all that difficult, and the whole process is pretty cool to witness -- what starts out as a bit of flour, yeast, and water transforms into a dough that then doubles in size and then, with a little time in the oven, magically morphs in to a loaf of bread. And it gives you bragging rights among your friends, because you made your own bread

Quindi! My selection for this month's theme are tigelle, small round breads typical of the Emilia-Romagna region, particularly the province of Modena but also common in Bologna, where I lived for a year. Tigelle are split and then stuffed with meat, cheeses, or vegetables, and are
 traditionally eaten as an antipasto. That being said, they can also easily be a full meal in their own right, which is exactly what I did when I lived in Bologna, with frequents visits to Tigelleria Tigellino, right near the city's main piazza. Fun fact: the name tigella comes from the tool that was traditionally used to shape and cook them, clay, fire-resistant discs called a tigelle, which were alternated and stacked with the uncooked dough to ultimately create a sort of tigelle tower that was placed by the fire and left to cook (you can see how it was done here). Now that we've mostly left cooking things by fire behind, there are more modern tigelle available, ones that are made from aluminum and placed over the stove (they look like this). 

My recipe research showed that there is no one way to make tigelle; some recipes called for doppio zero flour (a super fine, pure white flour) while others recommended all-purpose; some used milk as a liquid ingredient, while others advised cream, and still others a combination of both; a few recipes recommended cooking the tigelle in the oven, others on the stove in a pan, and some in the aforementioned modern day tigella. The common ingredient in all recipes appeared to be strutto (straightforward translation: pig fat, easily found in supermarkets here) but some recipes I stumbled across used a mix of oil and strutto or simply oil or butter, for those who might have qualms about using strutto. Hmm.


In the end, I came up with this recipe -- 00 flour because it's what I had on hand, whole milk because strutto seemed heavy enough without adding cream, cooked on the stovetop --
 all of which resulted in perfectly puffy, delicately golden brown tigelle, fluffy and soft on the inside and slightly crisper on the outside, the perfect vehicle for my chosen ingredients, or rather, salame piccante, prosciutto, stracchino cheese, and arugula. I ate the three you see photographed above for lunch, then maybe another two or so, before tucking the remaining ones into a bag to keep for, ehm, a midnight snack lunch the next day. I hope you do the same.

A couple of notes: Strutto is used widely in Italian cuisine, an ingredient in piadine from Bologna, seadas from Sardinia, and schiacciatine from Mantova, plus used in the frying of Sicilian cannoli. It is difficult to find in the U.S (I've tried!) and I'd guess also in other countries that aren't Italy. You can substitute butter or olive oil here with good results. Tigelle can be filled with any kind of meat, cheese, or vegetables you'd like - prosciutto, stracchino, and arugula is my favorite. If you want to cook them in the oven, preheat the oven to 370 degrees Fahrenheit (200 degrees Celsius). Place the tigelle on a baking sheet and cook for about 10 minutes, turning them half way through the cooking time to ensure both sides are golden brown. Whether you use the oven or the stove, the tigelle should puff up (magical!) as they cook.

As always, here are the November Cucina Conversations recipes from my fellow bloggers (a few have opted out this month but will be back in December!) -- 

Daniela of La Dani Gourmet is sharing her recipe for focaccia ligure.


Lisa aka Italian Kiwi has made focaccia di recco.

Last but not least, Carmen at The Heirloom Chronicles has made rosette di pane, a classic Roman bread.


TIGELLE

Ingredients:
2 cups (500 grams) 00 flour, or all-purpose flour in a pinch
1/3 cup (80 ml) water, plus more if needed
1/3 (80 ml) whole milk, plus more if needed
1 tablespoon (10 grams) yeast
2 tablespoons (15 grams) strutto (or olive oil or butter, see notes above) room temperature
3/4 teaspoon (7 grams) salt

Meat, cheese, and vegetables of your choosing for the filling

Directions:
In a small bowl, dissolve the yeast in the water and milk, whisking everything together. If you're doing this by hand: put the flour in another larger bowl, make a hole in the middle of the flour, and pour in the yeast-water-milk mixture. 
If you're doing this with a standing mixer, do the same exact thing as above, just in the bowl of the standing mixer. Next, mix everything together with a wooden spoon (or with the paddle attachment of your standing mixer). If the dough seems dry (it probably will) add more milk and water (a tablespoon of each) until the dough starts to come together. I think I ended up having to add about 1/3 cup more liquid.
Add the strutto or olive oil/butter and salt, and mix together again. If you're doing this by hand, at this point, you should turn the dough that is starting to form out on to a lightly floured work surface and start to knead until the dough comes together. 
Knead for another 8-10 minutes or until a smooth elastic dough forms. If you're doing this with a standing mixer, you can knead the dough using the dough hook attachment (lucky you!) When you're done kneading, form the dough in to a ball, place it in a bowl covered with a kitchen cloth, and let it rise in a warm, dry place for 2 hours, or until it doubles in volume.
Once the two hours are up, place your ball of dough on a lightly floured work surface and with a rolling pin roll it out until very thin, about 1/2 a centimeter. 
Using a 3-4 inch (8-10 cm) lightly floured cookie cutter, cut out as many tigelle as you can. Combine the scraps in to a ball, re roll the dough, and repeat until you have used all the dough. You should have 20-25 or so tigelle.
Set the tigelle on baking sheet and let them rise for another 30 minutes. When the 30 minutes are up, you can start to cook your tigelle. If you want to cook them on the stove: heat a large skillet over medium heat and cook the tigelle, turning, until puffed and brown on both sides (this will take about 6 or so minutes). 
Let the tigelle cool, then slice them open, fill with ingredients of your choosing, and enjoy. Makes 20-25 tigelle.





































































Lasagne alla zucca

Happy (almost) Thanksgiving, my fellow Americans! While the official day this year is November 23rd, or this Thursday, I'll be celebrating this Saturday, which leaves me a bit more time to cook and prep a sweet potato casserole, corn muffinsa pumpkin pie, and a pecan pie (!!!)

This will be my second year attending a Thanksgiving hosted by Emily O., one of my closest friends here in Rome who also happens to be one of my very favorite people to cook with (you may remember her from this post here). An invitation to Emily's for dinner is always a treat -- her greatest hits include a caramelized onion and goat cheese quiche, meatballs made with feta and dried apricots, pasta with a tomato, butter, and oregano sauce, and juicy all-American burgers with a side of ultra-addictive potato salad, not to mention dessert -- upside down plum cake, apple cheesecake bars, and a pear and red wine tart, to name just a few. Emily's culinary resume also includes tackling last year's turkey, a smashing, butter roasted, herb coated success big enough to serve 20+ people. With her, you can rest assured your taste buds are in good hands. 

Now! The invitation Emily sent out for Thanksgiving this year had a certain request on it, namely: let us know what you're bringing so we can plan the menu accordingly, but please, NO PASTA. While we have a lot of Italians coming to our Thanksgiving, and while its true pasta in Italy is an obvious choice, I see Emily's point; Thanksgiving is that one day a year where the table should be filled with traditional oddities like sweet potato marshmallow casserole, sweet and savory everything-but-the-kitchen-sink stuffing, a turkey of epic proportions, and a pie made with pumpkin. If you're organizing a Thanksgiving abroad, you will also want to give your non-American friends a chance to sample the Thanksgiving classics, all in the name of cultural exchange. Therefore, I repeat: NO PASTA ALLOWED.

But there's a but (isn't there always?)! But what if one were to contribute not just your typical, tomato sauce/ragù filled lasagna, but one with a distinctly Thanksgiving twist, one filled with butternut squash, an undeniably Thanksgiving-y ingredient?! What if one were to to cook this squash in white wine with garlic and sage, layer it with pasta, Parmesan, mozzarella, and a velvety béchamel sauce, with a bit of prosciutto sprinkled in for good measure? Wouldn't this amount to an arguably Thanksgiving appropriate pasta dish (don't forget that squash!) one that would be so delicious one could overlook those few Italian (Parmesan, mozzarella, prosciutto, wine...) ingredients thrown in?!

Yes, yes it would. This butternut squash lasagne (lasagne alla zucca) was spectacular, one of those recipes that come out so well, I run to whoever's nearest (usually my sister) to tell them all about it, then proceed to bombard my foodie friends with photos and messages of the resulting dish (you know who you are). This lasagne was intensely yet not overwhelmingly squash-y with hints of sage and white wine, superbly cheesy, as a good lasagne should be, with a surprise bite of prosciutto every so often to keep things interesting. As the photos show, it was also a fiercely and un-apologetically fiery orange, to remind just in case you forgot that this is a butternut squash lasagna, not your typical lasagna, and therefore is fit for your Thanksgiving buffet in all its autumnal splendor. 

A couple of notes: This recipe is pretty flexible -- you can use another kind of cheese here in place of the mozzarella; provolone, scamorza, or fontina would be nice too. You could add a little nutmeg to the béchamel if you'd like, or leave out the prosciutto if you're feeding vegetarians, or add mushrooms (sauteed porcini mushrooms would be nice) to the layers. I like to buy my squash already cut in to cubes (thanks, Carrefour) but if you're buying a full squash, be sure to remove all the stringy insides and seeds and peel before chopping up and measuring out your 900 grams. If you don't have an immersion blender to puree the pumpkin, a blender or a food processor would probably work just as well; just give it a few pulses until the mixture is fairly smooth but not super liquid-y. Finally, I didn't put exact quantities for how much cheese, prosciutto, béchamel, pumpkin go in between the layers, but just use your judgement and eyeball it as you go, figuring you need to have about four layers with the fifth layer covered in pumpkin, béchamel, and more Parmesan.

Looking for other cozy, layered recipes like this one? I've also got this lasagna alla Bolognese and this parmigiana di melanzane. For more pumpkin/squash recipes, I've got this pappardelle with squash and porcini mushrooms, and these savory squash pancakes with sage butter

LASAGNE ALLA ZUCCA

Ingredients for the butternut squash filling:
A little less than 2 pounds (900 grams) squash, weighed without the peel, cut in to small cubes
1 small yellow onion, chopped
1 garlic clove
A couple of sage leaves, torn up
3/4 teaspoon salt
Black pepper
3/4 cup (180ml) white wine
1 cup (236ml)  water

Ingredients for the béchamel:
2 cups (500ml) whole milk
5 tablespoons (50 grams) flour
4 tablespoons (50 grams) butter
A pinch of salt
Black pepper

Ingredients to assemble the lasagna:
15 sheets (about 300 grams) ready bake lasagna noodles
1 cup (100 grams) freshly grated Parmesan cheese 
1 1/4 cups (250 grams) mozzarella cheese, grated or cut into small pieces
1/2 cup (a couple of slices) prosciutto, torn in to small pieces

Directions:
Start with your squash. In a large deep skillet over medium heat, heat up some olive oil (enough to coat the pan generously) and add the onion, garlic, and sage. Stir around for a minute or two, or until the sage and garlic are fragrant, and then add the squash to the pan. Cook for about 10-12 minutes, or until the squash begins to soften.  Add 3/4 teaspoon salt and 

When the squash begins to soften, add the wine and the water. Let the squash mixture cook until the liquid is completely absorbed, adding a little more water if some of the pieces of squash are still on the undercooked side.
While your squash is cooking, get your béchamel started. In a medium pot over medium low heat, melt the butter, then sift in the flour, a little at a time (sifting isn't absolutely mandatory, but it helps lumps from forming in what should otherwise be a nice smooth béchamel sauce). Stir the flour and butter for a minute or two, then add in the milk a little at a time, whisking, until it is all incorporated.
Cook the milk mixture, whisking, until it becomes thick enough to coat the back of the spoon; you can test this by making a line with your finger on the back of the spoon, through the béchamel that should be coating it; if there is a visible path that remains, the béchamel is thick enough (see this photo here!)

When your béchamel is done, turn off the heat it and set it aside. Your pumpkin should be fully softened by now. Remove the garlic clove and discard. Put the pumpkin in to a large bowl and mash down as best you can with a potato masher, if you have one, just to get you started. Next, use an immersion blender and blend the pumpkin until smooth. Taste the pumpkin mixture for salt and pepper and season if needed. 
Time to assemble! Take a 7x11x2 inch (28x18x5 cm) baking pan and butter it lightly (not sure if this is necessary but I always do this to make sure the bottom layer doesn't stick). Stir about 1/3 cup (about 5 tablespoons) of béchamel in to the pumpkin and set aside. Ladle a thin layer of béchamel over the bottom of the pan, then place three lasagna noodles on top. Next, spoon some pumpkin over the noodles, then a generous sprinkling of Parmesan, some mozzarella, a bit of prosciutto, and then another ladleful of béchamel.
Repeat these layers with your next 9 noodles (to make 3 additional layers, with 3 noodles each), pressing down the noodles to compact everything with each layer. Top your fourth layer with three plain noodles.
 
Whisk the remaining béchamel into the remaining pumpkin and pour over the last three noodles. Top with whatever Parmesan is left, plus a little more if you'd like (a nice Parmesan crust on top will form in the oven).
Cover the lasagna with aluminum foil and bake in the middle rack of the oven for 30 minutes. When the 30 minutes are up, move the lasagna to the higher rack in the oven, and bake for an additional 10 minutes, or until the Parmesan browns on top. Remove from the oven, let cool slightly, and serve immediately with extra Parm on the side if you'd like. Serves 6.